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The subtle nuances of snow

snow countrySnow Country – Yasunari Kawabata, translated from Japanese, Tuttle Publishing, 1996, first published in English in 1956, 175 pages

Living in Japan has inspired a slight foray into Japanese literature, and Snow Country was recommended by a few friends as a modern Japanese classic. I was especially interested in this novel as I live in  part of Japan that is not so far from the book’s “snow country”, and not so dissimilar either. Mine is also a rural area, dotted with mountains, fields, and hot spring towns. The setting took on special significance as I looked out the window at my own town’s 6-foot snowbanks, and its hills and mountains and snow-topped cedars.

When my friend lent me the book, she advised me to read it carefully, mentioning that it was very “subtle”. I can’t think of a better word to describe it, a novel deeply concerned with the intricacies of two characters’ relationship and the quiet ways in which it is irreparably broken. Not only that, but the setting – the Snow Country – is a central element of the book, embodying the sense of cold, loneliness, and isolation which characterizes Shimamura and Komako’s interactions. The book deals with the bitter love affair between wealthy Tokyo man Shimamura and Komako, a geisha in a remote hot spring town. Their relationship is destined for failure and Komako tries to fight her feelings for Shimamura, which only seems to make her more desperate and miserable.

I found it interesting how often Shimamura remarks on Komako’s “clean” appearance, or “clean” skin, almost in place of remarking on her beauty. It’s interesting – the word kirei in Japanese means “beautiful” but also means “clean”. I wonder whether the use of the word “clean” was just a translational choice, or if the two concepts are so intertwined in Japanese thought that it makes no difference to distinguish between cleanliness and beauty. Not only that, but the persistent association of a woman’s sadness with her beauty, which I have found in other works of Japanese art, can be seen throughout the novel.

Overall, if there’s one word besides “subtle” I would use to describe Kawabata’s work, it would be “delicate”. Perhaps even “fragile”. That is the feeling I get about Komako’s spirit, her whole relationship with Shimamura on which the novel is based, and her hold on happiness and life itself. Unfortunately I didn’t feel as engaged or invested as I would have liked for a book with a plot so heavily focused on two characters and their relationship. If you’re looking for something big on plot, this certainly isn’t it; however, do give it a read if you want gently nuanced writing and delicate, tragic beauty.

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